Not a seal


Trending today, the seal that isn’t.

Fox News got it wrong. CNN – “Seal attacks kayaker with octopus” – got it wrong, too.

The Guardian got it wrong: “‘Mate, what just happened?’ Seal slaps kayaker in face with octopus.” NBC got it wrong. 

And the list goes on and on.

But there were journalists out there who knew what RickyJay28532, one of the commenters on the Fox News story, knew:

“We Alaskans know the difference between seals and sea lions; that is a sea lion, not a seal.”

KGO-TV in San Fransisco caught the error of identification Ricky Jay spotted and headlined its story “Sea lion flings octopus at kayaker in New Zealand,” and corrected the copy below to properly identify the pinniped as a sea lion. 

KABC in Los Angeles got it right, too.

The telltale is the ears. Sea lions have ears; seals don’t.

Seals belong to the family “phocids.” Sea lions belong to the family “otariids.” 

One might get away with calling a sea lion a seal in New Zealand where the New Zealand fur seal, actually a sea lion, is called a fur seal. And if you called a news organization to enlighten it as to the difference between seals and sea lions, there would almost certainly be a journalist willing to dig out a reference and then argue that sea lions are also referred to as “eared seals,” and thus it isn’t wholly wrong to call the animal a seal.

Sadly, not wholly wrong is a bad standard. In most of the U.S., pinnipeds with visible ears are called sea lions and the ones with no visible ears, seals.

“…Sea lions have small flaps for outer ears,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says. “The ‘earless’ or ‘true’ seals lack external ears altogether. You have to get very close to see the tiny holes on the sides of a seal’s sleek head.”

The differences between seals and sea lions go beyond ears, too. Seals are believed to have evolved from weasels; sea lions from bears. 

When journalists mistake sea lions for seals, they make journalists look stupid. Journalism looking stupid is one of the biggest problems in the business today. It’s destroying the profession tiny cut by tiny cut by tiny cut.

Words matter.

The Scandinavians and other Europeans might call a moose an elk, but were a journalist in the northern or western U.S. to make the mistake of echoing a Norwegian video referencing an “elk” without correcting the terminology, he or she would become a laughingstock.

Or maybe not.

For that to happen, people would have to believe the traditional media still matters, and you have to wonder if they believe that anymore. Twenty-nine percent of those who Gallup polled this month reported no trust in the media, and another 29 percent reported “not much at all.”

This was an improvement over a year ago when 68 percent of Americans put themselves into those two categories. Given the fracturing nature of news, however, you have to wonder if the improvement means readers and viewers really believe more or have simply shifted to news sources that reflect their biases:

Go Fox and Breitbart for right; go MSNBC and for left. Trust whoever is most likely to tell you what you want to hear.

Gallup and the Knight Foundation dug down into the polling and concluded “these results indicate that attempts to restore trust in the media among most Americans may be fruitful, particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias.”

That could be true. It could also be wishful thinking.

There is no real evidence journalists are working all that hard on improving accuracy. The little mistakes still appear daily, and a lot of mistakes continue to be overlooked.

The Washington Post would still have readers believe a moose gave birth in a parking lot in Anchorage in 2016 even though the Anchorage Daily News, which started the story, later admitted there was no evidence to support the story.

And despite how easy it is to fix errors on the internet, the Post isn’t alone in ignoring the fictional moose story. CNN is still reporting that “Alaskan shoppers stopped in their tracks to witness a moose unexpectedly give birth to a calf in a Lowe’s parking lot.”

That clearly never happened. Despite the efforts of, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and later the ADN, nobody could find a single shopper walking or stopped who witnessed the birth.

To the contrary, an employee of the Lowe’s hardware outside which cow and calf were  spotted said she saw the pair wander into the parking lot together from elsewhere.

None of this matters, however, unless journalism wants to win back the trust of readers and viewers. Some newsites are acting like that is their desire. Others don’t sesem to give a crap; they’re happy for the clicks of the moment.

Seal, sea lion; black bear, grizzly bear; moose, elk; salmon, tuna; dog, cat; what’s the difference as long as we get eyeballs on the post.

















2 replies »

  1. Bad or poor analogy, elks and moose. They are different names in different places for the same species or now considered slightly divergent, Alces alces and Alces Americanus. While as you point out sea lions and seals are not the same genus or even family.

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